In a study published in the journal Light: Science & Applications, a multidisciplinary team of researchers and clinicians was able to 3D print a tiny lens on to the end of an optical fibre, the thickness of a human hair.
The imaging device is so small that researchers were able to scan inside the blood vessels of mice.
Dr Jiawen Li, co-author and Heart Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing, University of Adelaide, says in Australia cardiovascular disease kills one person every 19 minutes.
"A major factor in heart disease is the plaques, made up of fats, cholesterol and other substances that build up in the vessel walls," Dr Li said.
"Preclinical and clinical diagnostics increasingly rely on visualising the structure of the blood vessels to better understand the disease.
"Miniaturised endoscopes, which act like tiny cameras, allow doctors to see how these plaques form and explore new ways to treat them," she said.
Dr Simon Thiele, Group Leader, Optical Design and Simulation at the University of Stuttgart, was responsible for fabricating the tiny lens.
"Until now, we couldn't make high quality endoscopes this small," Dr Thiele said.
"Using 3D micro-printing, we are able to print complicated lenses that are too small to see with the naked eye.
"The entire endoscope, with a protective plastic casing, is less than half a millimetre across," he said.
Dr Li explains: "It's exciting to work on a project where we take these innovations and build them into something so useful.
"It's amazing what we can do when we put engineers and medical clinicians together," said Dr Li.
Jiawen Li, Simon Thiele, Bryden C Quirk, Rodney W Kirk, Johan W Verjans, Emma Akers, Christina A Bursill, Stephen J Nicholls, Alois M Herkommer, Harald Giessen, Robert A McLaughlin .
Ultrathin monolithic 3D printed optical coherence tomography endoscopy for preclinical and clinical use.
Light Sci Appl 9, 124, 2020. doi: 10.1038/s41377-020-00365-w